How many people have read James Baldwin’s works in the last two decades? Reading is a famously elusive activity — even if you have a book open on your desk, how do we know you’re really reading it? — and difficult to measure with data. However, some proxies for reading do exist, such as book sales numbers and library circulation records.
Unfortunately, book sales data is highly proprietary, and it’s all but impossible for people outside the publishing industry to access this data. (This is something I’ve written about in an essay called “Where is All the Book Data?”) Fortunately, library checkout data is more available — or, at least, it’s starting to be.
Starting in 2017, the Seattle Public Library decided to make its checkout data publicly available. They publish aggregated checkout numbers, month by month, for each item in their collection. This data goes all the way back to April 2005 (for reasons that I have written about in the same book data essay).
The following blog post, written by University of Washington MLIS student Joe Lollo, analyzes Seattle Public Library checkouts of James Baldwin’s works from 2005-2022. To read an analysis of works checked out by James Baldwin from 2005-2017 written by me (Melanie Walsh), you can go to the following blog post.
James Baldwin’s Afterlife in Seattle Public Library Checkout Data
By Joe Lollo, UW MLIS student (2022-2024)
The rise of “open” data publishing by city governments has led to greater access to public library circulation records, which has in turn offered new avenues for exploring collective readership.123 One particular author whose work has been circulated extensively, on the internet and elsewhere, is James Baldwin, who Melanie Walsh describes as “more alive than ever” in the 21st century in her essay “Tweets of a Native Son: The Quotation and Recirculation of James Baldwin from Black Power to #BlackLivesMatter.”4
James Baldwin was an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and his writings helped raise the public’s awareness of racial oppression, especially related to African Americans, and homophobia. Literary scholars such as William Maxwell refer to Baldwin’s writing as “everlasting.” This is in part because Baldwin’s novels and essays point out the “physical precariousness” of Black life and its “disproportionate exposure to murder and white racism,” which is unfortunately still relevant today.5 Indeed, Baldwin’s call for participatory action against social injustice in the mid- and late-20th century has found new life in activist networks on social media in the 21st century, such as in the Black Lives Matter movement.6
In this blog post, I will show a few examples of the way contemporary library patrons engage with Baldwin’s work by analyzing and visualizing data from the Seattle Public Library’s (SPL) open data portal. The dataset used contains monthly checkout records of Baldwin’s work, with 29 distinct titles7, from 2005 to 2022. In the visualizations, I focus on records from 2012 to 2022 because it is the period in which checkouts of Baldwin’s begin to increase substantially.
I am particularly interested in whether the Black Lives Matter movement led to more patrons discovering Baldwin’s work and borrowing it from SPL. Is there a burst of attention to Baldwin’s texts in both social media and library contexts? These questions and more have guided my work with this data.
The above timeline shows the number of monthly checkouts of Baldwin’s work at SPL between January 2012 and December 2022. The number of checkouts increases slowly from 2013 to 2016, but sharply rises in 2017, 2020, and 2021.
The early increase in library checkouts of Baldwin’s works after 2014 might be related to what Melanie Walsh refers to as the “national chorus of grief and protest” that swelled over the 2014 death of Michael Brown, and the way that Baldwin’s quotes were re-circulated in viral tweets by activists such as Kim Moore (@SoulRevision). I believe that it is very likely that this “Baldwin revival,” as William Maxwell describes it, spurred more interest in Baldwin’s work from library users.
When you break down the total monthly checkouts by material type, you can see an increase in digital formats over time. While ebooks and audiobooks were both steadily increasing over time, checkouts of these formats skyrocketed in 2020 and 2021. This rise in engagement with digital materials can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and the American Library Association (ALA)’s recommendation of closing public libraries across the country in response to its health challenges 8. The SPL closed its doors at the start of the pandemic to ensure the health and safety of patrons.9 In response to the myriad library closures, book publishers lowered the prices of ebook and digital audiobook licenses, “expanding access to library collections in…difficult times” so patrons could still read in the safety of their homes.10
Reading this graph in conjunction with the total monthly checkouts reveals more about the dramatic increase in ebook and audiobook checkouts between mid-2020 and early 2021. The May 2020 killing of George Floyd saw another increase in public attention to Baldwin’s work, both by activists re-circulating his work through quotes and by leading news agencies, such as National Public Radio (NPR) and Time, who discussed Baldwin’s relationship to Black Lives Matter and similarly re-contextualized his famous quotes.11 12 It is likely that library patrons were likewise drawn to Baldwin’s work during this time period to help them grapple with racial injustice, trauma, or rage over Floyd’s death, and it is likely that both this broader public attention and the greater availability of digital library resources encouraged patrons to access even more of his works.
When you break the circulation data down by individual titles, five works stood out among the rest for having the most checkouts: The Fire Next Time (1963), Notes of a Native Son (1955), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and Another Country (1962). You can click on any title to isolate it from the larger trend.
The following heatmap displays the distribution of each work’s yearly checkouts by material type, across mediums.
Baldwin’s most checked out work overall is The Fire Next Time (1963).
This collection of essays is described by Jessica Moulite in a Neon Tommy piece as “work that still speaks to and about the complexities of race relations in America – with incomparable eloquence and insight.” In Moulitte’s opinion, Baldwin’s words “transcend time by remaining as relevant in the 2010s as they were in the 1960s,” as institutions are “still disciplining, endangering, and disembodying Black individuals,” leading to the formation of activist groups like Black Lives Matter 13. Further recognition and reception of The Fire Next Time came through the book’s influence on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestselling epistolary book Between the World and Me (2015), which is modeled after Baldwin’s work both structurally and thematically, particularly through the texts’ commentary on the “destruction” of the Black body. The upward spike in The Fire Next Time’s popularity among SPL patrons in 2016 might also be related to Coates’ paying homage to Baldwin.
One of Baldwin’s other works that also saw a large surge in library checkouts in the last decade is Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) as well. Barry Jenkins’ 2018 film adaptation of the novel placed Baldwin’s legacy in a new context, and this likely had an effect on reading behaviors of SPL users, because the book was Baldwin’s most checked out in 2019. Beale Street, the only novel in Baldwin’s corpus to be narrated by a woman, follows a Black woman’s desire to clear her boyfriend’s name after a false rape accusation and his persecution from the police, highlighting the racism rampant in the justice system and its influence on public perceptions of Black lives. The book received attention during the film adaptation’s release for its “cultural significance,” as it uses this fictional narrative to draw attention to the need for change in the justice system.14 After the revival of Baldwin’s text in another medium, it is highly likely that patrons were interested in reading the original work and comparing it to the film, leading to a more widespread knowledge and reception of Baldwin as an author in 2019.
James Baldwin’s fiction and nonfiction writing alike was, and still is, re-circulated on the internet in the wake of a broader awareness of anti-Blackness, leading to his status as one of the most quoted authorities on racial justice. Libraries have served these very same publics by facilitating readers’ experience with his work through their circulation systems. This analysis of Baldwin’s presence among library catalogs, and the way library users engage with his work, could only have been made possible through the development of Seattle’s Open Data Portal, which is a model for how data about libraries can be visible to the public. With future data analysis in mind, the growing acceptance of open data records by various city governments can lead to large-scale analyses of specific texts and authors across library systems.15 While this blog provides only one perspective on one author’s reception, I believe that it is an example of how library data, and the computational methods used to analyze it, can help researchers learn more about the reception of literary figures in the public sphere.
Weber, Nicholas, and Bree Norlander. “Open Data Publishing by Public Libraries.” 2019 ACM/IEEE Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (JCDL), June 2019, pp. 158-161. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8791172 ↩
Galyani-Moghaddam, Golnesa. “Public Library Circulation Records: What Do They Reveal About Users’ Reading Preferences?” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, vol. 53, no. 2, June 2021, pp. 328-337. ↩
Shanahan, John, et. al. “Reading Chicago Reading: Quantitative Analysis of a Repeating Literary Program.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 2, June 2020. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/14/2/000461/000461.html ↩
Walsh, Melanie. “Tweets of a Native Son: The Quotation and Recirculation of James Baldwin from Black Power to #BlackLivesMatter.” American Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 3, Sept. 2018, pp. 531-559. ↩
Maxwell, William J. “Born-Again, Seen-Again James Baldwin: Post-Post-Racial Criticism & the Literary History of Black Lives Matter.” American Literary History, vol. 28, no. 4, March 2016, pp. 812-827. ↩
Florini, Sarah. “Tweets, Tweeps, and Signifyin’: Communication and Cultural Performance on ‘Black Twitter.’” Television and New Media, vol. 15, no. 3, March 2013, pp. 223-227. ↩
The 29 works are: “A Dialogue with James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni,” Another Country, Blues for Mister Charlie, Collected Essays, Fifty Famous Stories Retold, Giovanni’s Room, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Going to Meet the Man, Great American Authors Read from Their Works, Vol. 1 (an anthology), I am Not Your Negro, If Beale Street Could Talk, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, Just Above My Head, Little Man, Little Man, Native Sons, No Name in the Street, Nobody Knows My Name, Notes of a Native Son, Nothing Personal, One Day When I Was Lost, Tell Me How long the Train’s Been Gone, The Amen Corner, The Cross of Redemption, The Devil Finds Work, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, The Fire Next Time, The Last Interview, and The Price of the Ticket. ↩
Morales, Macy. “ALA Executive Board recommends closing libraries to the public.” ALA News and Press Center, 17 March 2020. https://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2020/03/ala-executive-board-recommends-closing-libraries-public#:~:text=%22To%20protect%20library%20workers%20and,guidance%20from%20public%20health%20officials ↩
Gentry, Laura. “City of Seattle to Temporarily Close All Library Locations, Community Centers to Prevent Further Spread of COVID-19.” Seattle Public Library, 12 March 2020. https://www.spl.org/about-us/news-releases/city-of-seattle-to-temporarily-close-all-library-locations-community-centers-to-public-to-prevent-further-spread-of-covid-19 ↩
Albanese, Andrew. “Is the COVID-19 Crisis a Watershed Moment for Library eBooks?” Publishers Weekly, 27 March 2020. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/libraries/article/82834-is-the-covid-19-crisis-a-watershed-moment-for-library-e-books.html ↩
Hannah-Jones, Nicole, and Paul Butler. “To be in a rage, almost all the time.” NPR, June 1, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/01/867153918/-to-be-in-a-rage-almost-all-the-time ↩
Moulite, Jessica. “#Ferguson and #Blacklivesmatter Illustrate How James Baldwin’s Words Resonate More Than 25 Years After His Death.” Neon Tommy, 1 Dec. 2014. http://www.neontommy.com/news/2014/12/ferguson-and-blacklivesmatter-illustrate-how-james-baldwin-s-words-continue-resonate-mo.html ↩
Goode, Jon. “If Beale Street Could Talk: Why Black Love is a Revolutionary Act.” IndieWire, 11 Jan. 2019. https://www.indiewire.com/2019/01/if-beale-street-could-talk-barry-jenkins-black-love-1202034249/ ↩
“Why Open Library Data Matters.” IFLA News, International Federation of Library Associations, 4 March 2022. https://www.ifla.org/news/why-open-library-data-matters-perspectives-from-library-map-of-the-world-contributors/ ↩